Few embodied blues like Howlin’ Wolf. A giant of a man, he stood over six feet tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds but crucially, he was an outstanding physical performer “who would prowl the stage like a caged beast.”
About his stage performance, he was also described as someone who would crawl about on his hands and knees, or roll on his back like a man overcome with some paroxysm of emotion, all the while howling and moaning his blues as if his life depended on it.
“Wolf did not just sing the blues; he embodied them,” according to James Segrest, the co-author with Mark Hoffman of “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf” (2004).
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In a career full of amazing recordings, “Smokestack Lightning” would prove to be Wolf’s single greatest recording. It had been a part of his repertoire as far back as the early 1930s. He even recorded a version of it for RPM in 1951 as “Crying at Daybreak.”
Inspired lyrically, in part, by Charlie Patton’s “Moon Going Down” and the Mississippi Sheik’s “Stop and Listen Blues,” the song will take a life of its own becoming a smash hit with fans so much so that in 2009, “Smokestack Lightning” received the highest recognition any recording can receive from the United States government when it was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Recording Registry.
It’s a simple enough song, but its theme hit superbly home to Wolf’s own tough life so rendered it with all the emotions he could gather. The song follows the well-traveled road of romantic betrayal and the need to catch a train and leave his mistreatment behind. Undoubtedly, reminding him of his own mistreatment as a child and his flight to a better life, Wolf sings: “Well, stop your train; let a poor boy ride/Why don’t you hear me crying. A woo-hoo.” And concludes by singing, “Well, who been here, baby since uh, I been gone/Little bitty boy, derby on. A woohoo.”
It’s on “Smokestack Lightning” that Wolf’s powerful music gift was unleashed to the world. He sings an intense field holler vocal, interspersed with falsetto howls and blasts of raw country blues harmonica. The lyrics, a pastiche of traditional blues lines pared to the bone, are dark and cryptic conveying a mood of metaphysical agony.
Wolf is superbly aided on the record by Willie Johnson and Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass, Earl Phillips on drums and Hosea Lee Kennard on piano.
Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi, to Leon “Dock” Burnett and Gertrude Young, but the pair separated early on so Burnett came under the roof of his abusive uncle, Will Young.
A man can only take so much injustice and cruelty so at 13, Wolf fled his uncle’s home, hopping a train to the Mississippi Delta where he reunited with his father and had a loving home at last.
At the age of 18, Wolf learned to play guitar from Charley Patton the Delta’s first great blues star whom he met in 1930. A petite man, Patton played the guitar snapping and bending strings with his fingers or making them sob and moan with a slide, while rocking a juke house until it almost came off its foundation.
As a show man, “he also played the guitar behind his head, between his legs or threw it up in the air spinning it around while never losing the propulsive beat that kept the dancers moving. To crown it, Patton’s was a ferocious singer who roared out lyrics in a hoarse, nearly unintelligible voice, and carried on running conversations with himself through spoken asides in different voices, often switching between his rough, affected singing voice and his natural speaking voice.”
All of these, Wolf learned and made it part of his own distinctive blues persona while also blessed with a naturally gravelly voice that was capable of amazing subtlety and nuance.
Wolf also took harmonica lessons from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Miller) in 1933 and learned from records by greats including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, and blues-influenced country singer Jimmie Rodgers, among others.
Over the years, “Smokestack Lightning” has been covered by numerous artists including Etta James, Bob Dylan, Lester Butler, the Yardbirds, the Animals, George Thorogood and Gov’t Mule.
“Smokestack Lightning” has also received numerous awards over the years. In 1985, the song was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in its “Classics of Blues Recordings—Singles or Album Tracks” category. It was further honored by the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 as a recording of lasting musical importance.
In early 1941, Wolf was inducted into the US Army. By the autumn of 1943, he was in a military hospital near Portland, Oregon. He had an honorable discharge from the US Army. In 1948, Wolf attempted assembling his own band in West Memphis, Arkansas.
In 1951, Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, puts word out he wants to record Wolf. In 1951, Wolf cuts two recordings for Sam Phillips on May14: Moanin’ At Midnight and How Many More Years. Phillips would describe Moanin’ At Midnight as a ‘classic thing that nobody can improve on.’
Moanin’ At Midnight and How Many More Years are leased to and released by Chicago’s Chess Records as a double A-side single. By autumn 1951 they were in the top 10 of the Billboard R&B chart.
On January 10, 1976, Wolf died at Hines VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois from a combination of a brain tumor, kidney disease and heart failure. He was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Hillside, Cook County, Illinois. In his life he married Katie Mae Johnson and then Lillie Handley Jones.